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Hallo again to all.

Cruets with chaliceNot too long ago we visited a very old church where we saw a very new thing. As we sat in pews surrounded by friends and relatives, we gazed on wall plaques commemorating the seven clergy of this parish who have later become bishops in one Anglican province or another. We looked at names we had only seen before in history books, and marveled a little at being surrounded by so great a company of witnesses. The hymns were stirring and the church was relatively full—no small accomplishment in this large building. We were glad to write a cheque and to deposit it in the offering plate that made its way from usher to pew-sitter to pew-sitter to usher in an orderly fashion during a lovely musical offertory.

This was when things changed. We are used to an acolyte approaching the celebrant at this stage of the service, bowing simply, and offering a bowl in which water is poured from a cruet over the celebrant's fingers. The celebrant then takes a small linen towel, dries off, places the linen back on the acolyte's arm, and a small mutual bow occurs again. During this small ceremony, if the church is quiet enough and one's ears are good enough, one can sometimes hear the priest reciting parts of Psalm 26, including this verse:

I will wash my hands in innocency, O Lord: and so will I go to thine altar.

It is an ancient ceremony called the Lavabo, tender in its intimacy and important in the spiritual interpretations associated with it. Though some explain it away as a utilitarian action to cleanse the hands before touching 'thy creatures of bread and wine,' which will in turn be consumed by priest and people, the weight of church tradition says that this is a moment of spiritual cleansing as the priest assumes the weighty responsibility of bearing the assembly's prayers and oblations during the great thanksgiving. In other words, the Lavabo isn't about germiness. It's about inner cleanness symbolised by external washing.

To get back to Christ Church, Emerald City: at this point in the service, an acolyte approached each of the dozen robed people assembled around the altar in turn. He bowed, but didn't offer a towel or a bowl. Instead, he proffered what appeared to be a two generous squirts from a pump-action hand-sanitizer bottle. The vested personages rubbed their hands together solemnly with disinfecting earnestness, and bowed as the acolyte moved on his way. It was a little astonishing when it happened, and in addition to taking a very long time (the service halted as the process continued, and we didn't make our way to the Sursum corda until all had scrubbed and bowed) it smelled bad. Instead of the usual church odors of incense, musty paper or mothballs, we smelled Purell. The whole thing was jarring to our sensibilities in its novelty and curious solemnity. We have never since seen the Solemn Choral Application of the Hand Sanitizer, but it has given us much occasion for thought and mirth since then.

Hand sanitizerOn reflection, we're not nearly as disturbed by what we saw as we were when it took place. Never mind that there appears to be no evidence that anyone has ever contracted the plague, SARS, influenza or even a common cold from receiving the Holy Communion in one kind or two. And never mind that the congregation who had just exchanged handshakes were given no provision for sanitizing their own hands. Nor is it even to the point that anti-bacterial soap-squirts are believed to be contributing to serious environmental pollution and the development of strong strains of antibiotic-resistant bugs. At the end of the day, no one was seriously harmed beyond delay and annoyance by this liturgical eccentricity; as far as we could tell, no one else in the congregation even thought it was strange. They could well have thought sincerely that such things have been happening since some remote period in time like 1662 or 1928 when hot water and shampoo were in shorter supply than they are today. In truth, the liturgists of this parish have crafted a dynamic adaptation of a traditional rite that still may retain its ancient spiritual symbolism whilst also providing an opportunity for the community to observe a precaution it deems important. It was not until many weeks after the fact that we were able to view this as an example of what John Keble was pleased to call 'spontaneous evolution' in liturgy as its living meanings change and grow organically.

We would like to remind the good people of Christ Church, Emerald City that the Lavabo is a spiritual and not a medical ceremony, and to assure them that Dr Winkerbean's cold will almost certainly not make them sick as they consume the precious blood unless she sneezes on them. We'd also like to suggest that they avoid Triclosan with something approaching a religious seriousness. This is not quite how we would order worship given the chance to do so; but it surely falls within the pale of that generous 'liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free'. So we'll try hard in future to keep from thinking dismissively of a practice that may have been more meaningful and reassuring to our neighbours than we knew. Liturgy grows and changes in strange ways like this, lurchingly here and there, sometimes carefully and sometimes carelessly. The important thing is that as it changes it does so with integrity—so that it really does unite us discernibly with the invisible Church of the ages as we worship, and draws us together as we give ourselves to God and strive to open big doors to his love.

See you next week, with hearts (and hands) clean.

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Last updated: 5 August 2007

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